Published on Sunday, 02 February 2014 09:27
Christ Church Kyiv
Sermon, December 8, 2013
Isaiah 11:1-10 Psalm 72 Romans 15:4-13 Matthew 3:1-12
A forest fire is a frightening thing. You may remember the fires in the summer of 2003 in Siberia. Satellites taking pictures of the earth found 157 fires burning at the same time. These fires covered 110,000 square kilometers. That would be an area, a square 331 kilometers on each side – about the size of Bulgaria. The smoke from the fires darkened the skies over Osaka, Japan, over 4,000 kilometers away. And soot – dust in the air from the smoke was found in Seattle, Washington. That is a vast fire.
Around the world, when forests have been destroyed by fires there is a pattern of recovery. This pattern is called “natural succession." This term describes the stages which the land, plants and animals go through as they return to their original state after they’ve been destroyed. The cycle of natural succession begins after a fire, or other natural disaster has destroyed an area's plant life.
Destruction followed by regrowth. The prophet Isaiah wrote, a shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse. There would be a little bright green stem that would come up from a stump.
Just prior to that shoot coming up, a tree had been cut down. I’m looking at chapter 10 of the book of Isaiah. This is the chapter that precedes our reading from Isaiah today.
Chapter 10 of Isaiah is the story of Israel’s path toward destruction. Kings and priests led the nation of Israel into sin nationwide. They made unjust laws. The deprived the poor of their rights. They robbed widows. The people were proud and had forgotten God’s purposes in their lives in the life of the nation.
And so God would punish Israel for their sin. And his rod for punishing the people of Israel would be the nation of Assyria.
And Assyria itself was a proud nation. Assyria saw itself as a world power, and believed in its own strength and its own wisdom.
But God sees the heart. God knew the pride in the Assyrians. He would use the nation of Assyria as his rod to punish Israel. But it was not because the Assyrians were better people. They weren’t. And God already knew that he would bring judgment on Assyria for their pride and their arrogance. The Assyrian empire itself would be conquered, and would disappear from history.
“Does the ax raise itself above the person who swings it, or the saw boast against the one who uses it?” Isaiah asked. Assyria proudly believed in their own strength. Men are always inclined to trust in themselves rather than in God.
But God would use Assyria, and then she would be punished as well.
Israel would be destroyed, Isaiah wrote. But there would be a remnant. There would be survivors of the destruction of Israel. And then God would show his mighty power to his people, the nation of Israel.
“My people, who live in Zion, do not be afraid of the Assyrians, who beat you with a rod and lift up a club against you . . . Very soon my anger against you will end and my wrath will be directed to their destruction.”
Israel would be punished for their sin, and Assyria would be destroyed for her sin. The Lord promised to cut down the forests with an ax. He would cut down Israel and Assyria.
And then, a shoot would come up from the stump of Jesse. From this terrible and vast destruction, a new small sprout would come up from the stump of a broken tree. And the sprout here comes from the stump of Jesse – Jesse, the father of David.
God had raised up David as his king. But then the nation of Israel drifted. They drifted far, far away from God. This happens over and over in the Old Testament.
But this sprout came up from the line of Jesse. Then from this sprout came a branch. And that branch will be the one who will bring justice to the poor. He will rule over a righteous kingdom with wisdom and understanding. The spirit of the Lord will be with him. And the love and mercy of God would be known by all who live on the earth. The kingdom of God would come.
No one would ever want to be near a forest fire. No one would want to face the heat, the sting of a burning forest.
But fire happens.
It is like the truth. It is there, staring you in the face.
And John the Baptist came. He was the Isaiah of his day. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
John the Baptist had read Isaiah. And John knew this was the time that Isaiah had foretold. “Prepare the way for the Lord,” he said. Prepare your hearts, turn away from sin, because the kingdom of God is coming.
Isaiah in his day could do nothing but to tell of the future that was coming. He warned them. A fire was coming.
And now John can do nothing but tell what God had spoken to him. It was God spoke through John.
Get ready! Wrath and destruction are coming. Turn away from your self-centered life. Be ready for the kingdom of God.
John the Baptist created quite a sensation. People came from all over to hear him. They walked, or rode their donkeys for days and days to come and see him and hear him. He attracted a lot of attention.
People have been coming to Kyiv from all over Ukraine these past two weeks. They heard about what is going on, and they cam to Kyiv. There is something big going on. And you can’t keep people away.
Somehow people knew that John Baptist was out there preaching and baptizing. They didn’t have radio and television and news on the internet. Or on twitter. And they came.
When you repent, John said, then produce fruit. You won’t fool anyone, you won’t fool God, if you say you have repented, and then your life has not changed. Good fruit must come from your life. And when you have turned away from yourself, you will escape the fire that is coming. But if you do not produce good fruit, you will be cut down, and thrown into the fire.
Don’t think you could say to God, I came from a good family. I came from a Christian nation. That’s not important, John said. If you think God will give you a break because of your family, or your nation, you are wrong.
John the Baptist. They called him that of course because he came baptizing. In the Old Testament, passing through the water was a symbol of God saving and cleansing a person, or a whole nation. Noah and his family passed through the water of the flood. Moses led the children of Israel through the red sea. And in the book of Leviticus, someone who was spiritually unclean had to take a bath of purification.
The prophet Elisha told king Naaman, who was a leper, to dip himself seven times in the Jordan River. This healed him from his leprosy.
John baptized people in water. This was a visible symbol for what someone had already done on the inside. Someone repented, decided to turn away from their sin, and to live for God and his purposes.
But john announced an even greater baptism. He told of the one who would come after himself. He “is more powerful and I.” and john said that he was not even worthy to carry his sandals.
The one who comes after john will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. People would pass through or dip themselves in water after they’d been renewed on the inside, renewed in soul and spirit. And now, they would be baptized not only symbolically, but they would be baptized in the holy spirit of God.
A baptism into God himself.
And the one who turned himself around, truly turned away from his sin would be baptized with fire.
Hmm. That is an unusual phrase, baptism of fire. Again, we see reference to this fire through the old and new testaments. The priests would offer sacrifices on the altar, and then those sacrifices would be burned. That was an offering for atonement – atonement being the repairing of the relationship between God and man. The sacrifice that was burned was completely destroyed by the fire.
And the fire of God shows us the presence of God. In the burning bush. And god led the nation of Israel in the desert by a fire.
And of course fire is a symbol of destruction. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by fire. And God himself is described as a consuming fire.
The baptism by fire will either purify someone spiritually, or destroy them. The one who will be purified will have his previous life – life apart from God – destroyed. They will be renewed.
The one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit is God himself. And of course john was speaking of the one who would come immediately after him, our lord Jesus Christ. If I will go through the fire, I want to go through with the Holy Spirit living in me, and having complete forgiveness from Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ came to bring the Holy Spirit to the life of every believer. And he came for many other reasons, too. In our reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, we read from the New Living Translation that “Christ came as a servant to the Jews[a] to show that God is true to the promises he made to their ancestors. 9 He also came so that the Gentiles might give glory to God for his mercies to them.”
He came for many reasons. One of the reasons he came was so that everyone might see that the promises of the Old Testament would be proved, would be confirmed.
And we see that he came for us so that we might give glory to god, because god has been merciful to us.
The thought of fire is a scary thing. But we do not need to fear the fire of God. God is merciful. He promises to take us through the storms and the fires of life without being harmed.
He came so that we might give glory to god. When we worship, we give glory to god in our prayers, in our hymns, in our giving, in our reading and studying of God’s word.
Today is the second Sunday of advent. In our lectionary readings we’ve had a superpower invading the land of God’s chosen people. There was a tree that was cut down. There was a man who was dressed in clothes made of camel hair, and who ate locusts and honey. He came and preached in the rocky desert. He was preaching “fire and brimstone.”
And we have some of the reasons that Jesus Christ came. He was born surrounded by farm animals and put in a feeding trough, a wooden box used for feeding animals.
Yet he was born a king. He will judge all the people with perfect justice. He will defend the sick, and the poor; he will crush the oppressor. He will live as long as the sun, as long as the moon; he lives forever.
There will be a day of fire and destruction. A fire even bigger than that fire that covered a forest the size of Bulgaria.
And Solomon wrote, he will be like rain falling on a field, like showers watering the earth.
“In his days,” Solomon wrote of this king, “In his days may the righteous flourish and prosperity abound till the moon is no more. 18 Praise be to the Lord God, the God of Israel, who alone does marvelous deeds. 19 Praise be to his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory.
Amen and Amen.
Sermon, Dennis Bowen